Wednesday, May 04, 2005


While other fields have standardized postdoc programs, computer science still searches for the right approach for postdocs. While we have had postdoc positions since I can remember, quite often researchers have gone straight from Ph.D. to tenure-track positions particularly in times of high growth in CS departments (early-mid 80s and mid-late 90s).

We are now seeing a spike in the demand for postdoc positions for several reasons.

  • A tightening job market means less tenure-track jobs so more people opt to do postdocs to build up their CVs. Several researchers are even taking second and third postdocs, not long ago a rarity in CS.
  • Many students opt to delay a tenure-track position for a year and do a postdoc first. The commitment goes both ways, if a department is holding a position for a student then that student is committing to going to that department. It's not fair to go back on the job market during that postdoc year. Some departments are becoming more reluctant to allow the year delay because of bad experiences with students not fulfilling that commitment.
  • More and more students attend graduate school in their home countries and hope to eventually return to permanent jobs in those countries but take postdoc positions elsewhere to get a broader view of the field.
Alas we don't have an increase in postdoc supply to go along with this demand. Many of the industrial research labs have shrunk and hire few or no postdocs. Meanwhile most US academic departments have no permanent postdoc programs and CS grants are rarely large enough to cover the cost of a postdoc (as opposed to Canadian and European groups which tend to have more postdocs). Just another way the US is losing strong researchers to other countries.


  1. What about all of European and Asian researchers immagrating to the US?
    It seems that in the US Computer Science community many researchers are not USA citizens "from birth". how many CS centers in Europe are remarkable as
    say Cornell?

  2. I think you probably meant to say that you are witnessing a spike in the supply of postdocs and correspondingly no significant change in demand for postdocs. Or, maybe you meant a spike in the demand for postdoc positions and no change in supply of postdoc positions.

  3. Right, I meant a spike in demand for positions. I updated the post.

  4. is it true that if you don't get tenure then you're basically fired?

  5. In Israel going for a PostDoc (in another country) is effectively a mandatory requirement for obtaining a tenure track position in a CS faculty in a university (there are very few exceptions).

    As for the question above, I assume it depends on the particular university but usually not getting a tenure for too long indeed terminates one's academic career.

  6. One of the reasons for getting postdocs is the increasing complexity of the area: in a typical PhD program the student interacts with a small group of specialists, who tend to have a specific point of view about their subarea of research. Going to a different institution broadens the perspective of the researcher.

    In experimental science, postdocs typically are used to acquire expertise in new research techniques. While it is a lot easier to learn Theory from a distance, as papers have almost all the information needed to master new ideas and techniques, one can get a lot of the intuition easier from researchers active in the subarea.

    How many single CS departments active in Theory would have active research in all of: PCP, cryptography, quantum computing, combinatorial algorithms, computational economics, mathematical learning theory, approximation algorithms, complexity theory, computational geometry, and distributed algorithms, just
    to list at random some areas of Theory?

    Yet some of the beautiful recent papers in Theory are the result of applying techniques of one subarea to another. A postdoc can learn some of the techniques not covered in her PhD institution at a postdoc.

    Finally, as a Cornell PhD, far from me to try to diminish its stature as a superb department, but it is no longer true that all the best CS departments are in the US. The Hebrew University, Toronto, Weizman, Amsterdam, Waterloo, or the Max Planck Institute are superb places for Theory, and I made no attempt to include all good places ...